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Choosing a new computer.

Author(s): 

Brian J Pankuch
Department of Chemistry, Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016

Note: This article was scanned using OCR from the Fall 1989 CCCE Newsletter. Please contact us if you identify any OCR errors.
 
After 3 years of considering different computer systems and working on extra projects to get the money to buy a new system, I finally bought a new one. It wasn't easy or obvious which to choose.
 
My first need was for a good system to write programs on since that is my primary interest. Having transferred programs successfully between many systems I knew it could be done, but usually with much time and effort. Sirtce I'd rather spend this effort on programming, another requirement was to develop programs on a system available to my students. So we had to have the system available on campus. It also had to be easy for very poorly prepared freshmen to use. It would be helpful to have many excellent programs available. Needed were the best in programming languages and tools, great graphics ( I think the weaker the student the more important the graphics are). I needed a fast system since I don't have much patience waiting for computers to work. I'd like any new neat innovations in hardware or software to be available for my machine. It would have to be expandable.
 
My first thought was a Sun. I worked with one for quite awhile learning C and UNIX. Quite impressive in most departments, but too complicated for my freshmen. Also we don't have any available for students.
 
The Apple ll systems don't seem powerful enough, but extra hardware keeps coming out and we have many around campus. Many students also own their own. But they are pretty slow and
the programming tools are not the best.
 
IBM and especially clones were appealing. You can get enormous amounts of great software, add on parts, and if a clone would serve your purposes a hefty discount from IBM prices. Almost any new idea in software or hardware would have to be available eventually because of the large number of IBM PC's around.
 
Macintosh also looked good because large amounts of great software, add ons, etc. But no Mac clones so the prices looked quite formidable.
 
At this point I was thinking about an IBM 70 or 80, and Mac II,. but leaning pretty heavily toward an IBM clone because of the price. Just to be sure I called some colleagues at Princeton to see what they thought. One physcist somewhat, to my surprise, was heavily in favor of the Mac. His responsibility is purchasing systems for amicro lab used by students and faculty and he travels to all the computer shows. Many vendors love to say Princeton is using their stuff so he gets many previews of programs and hardware long before the rest of us mortals.
 
He said the Mac interface is so consistent across applications that once you have learned the Mac interface you have about 80% of each new program. In his opinion Mac software is 3-4 years ahead of similar IBM software. This probably isn't true for programs written by the same company for both machines, but it does seem to take more than windows and a mouse to make a good useable interface.
 
Further research with colleagues in chemical industry brought similar comments. Even graphs showing significant decreases in time required to learn new programs on the Mac. Time to learn new applications on IBM systems supposedly doesn't decrease as much because each is quite different from the others. This was a big point for me since I've seen my family struggle getting work done on my old system when they had been off for a while. I just couldn't imagine my average student putting in the time and effort to learn a new set of commands for each program. In fact since I've been using computers with my students for over 12 years I know they won't learn new programs without a lot of effort on my part.
 
So I started looking seriously at the Mac II. Prices still bothered me, but I found that list prices have little to do with what you pay. Discounts range from 25-50% from list! Since prices are changing constantly and the discounts you can get depend very much on your personal situation, I won't even try to quote prices. First 'decide on the equipment then shop around for the best prices. It really makes a difference. Your best discounts are usually available thru your college, state purchasing plans, a relative who works for a company that gets sizeable discounts.
 
I decided on a Mac Ilx with a 80 meg hard disk, the new high density diskette drive ( 1.4 meg) which can also read and write to IBM formatted disks! I also got AIUX the UNIX like operating system which is new to the Mac. Working with it for about 6 months now, I'm getting pretty comfortable. So far it has pretty much lived up to its billing. It does take awhile to learn and longer to program, but my learning time on each new . well designed ( follows the¬∑ Mac guidelines) program is shorter and shorter. I find it very intuitive and friendly. You can experiment instead of reading manuals and you can usually do what you want without crashing the system.
 
My experience with my students has been excellent. I asked my students how many had experience with the Mac it was less than 5%. I arranged to bring them into the Mac lab and showed them how to start the Mac and bring up and use a program I wrote. Within 5-10 minutes pairs of students at each Mac were successfully doing and learning about problems I was of course very pleased. If new users can be up and running with this little, effort the future is looking more promising. Comments from students ranged from 'it's a lot of fun' to 'it was almost too easy to learn' ( these are students talking about chemistry). Not a single negative comment. Yet.
 
My own experiences are similar. My programming tools are the most advanced available. They are much more complicated than the average wordprocessor or spreadsheet. The Mac interface is so intuitive that I can lay off for 6-8 weeks and start right back as ifl worked yesterday. My family also loves it.
 
Problem: I have AIUX 1.01 (Apple Unix) up on my machine. It takes 65 meg of my hard disk and I cannot run a single program I have under it. This leaves under 15 meg for my stuff on a 80 meg hard disk. Although I'm probably developing some good habits in throwing old stuff away I'd really like more of my disk storage available. Version 1.1 AIUX showed up recently, on something over 30 diskettes. I looked at the rather large amounts of documentation and decided I may need a lot of time to set it up. UNIX is powerful but it is ¬∑difficult to work with. If l can get any info on the new version I may try it, but I'm seriously considering erasing AIUX and starting over without it. rve not found any good sources on using AIUX, and this makes the lack of understandable documentation a major problem. Most Mac ,documentation is very good but not for AIUX.
 
recommendations:
1)Chemists generally need complicated word processing so the enhanced keyboard is very worthwhile.
2) Once I filled a 650 meg disk in 3 weeks so I feel a big disk for storage is useful.
3) I got used to a large screen monitor while using the Sun, so I have a 20 inch Moniterm Viking 2/72. At the moment I have no pressing need for color. The large size screen is much more
useful for almost everything. I'd get a no glare coating for the screen. Very helpful. I use a standard IBM screen for this newsletter and it probably takes 8-10 times longer because of the constraints of the screen. All you need is to win a lottery to pay for the equipment.
 
NOTE:
Chemtext is a chemist's wordprocessor from Molecular Design (415-895-1313 ). The third figure down on the cover was done with ChemText. I find it difficult to use, nonintuitive, crashes, loses material, and has some of the worst documentation I have seen. I suppose if you used it a lot you'd get used to it. Personally I can do everything I need in far more pleasant ways. If anyone has used it extensively and likes it feel free to send a positive review.

 

Date: 
10/01/89 to 10/04/89